This review is an Ionarts exclusive.
Sunday afternoon’s exceptional three-hour-long British Choir Festival sponsored by the Cathedral Choral Society, featured the choirs of Washington and Canterbury Cathedrals and the choir of Saint Thomas Church, New York City, respectively conducted by Michael McCarthy, David Flood, and John Scott. In addition to repertoire sung individually by each of the choirs, monumental works of Allegri and Parry ambitiously performed by the three choirs combined left the most lasting impression.
Gregorio Allegri’s polychoral Miserere mei (Psalm 51), which was once restricted under threat of excommunication for use only in the Sistine Chapel, was well matched antiphonally to Washington National Cathedral’s grand acoustic. With the St. Thomas Choir at the west end of the nave, Canterbury choir at the crossing, Washington National Cathedral Choir in the north transept balcony, and a small ensemble in the south transept balcony, a comprehensive aural experience was attained with choirs alternating verses antiphonally. Led by Canterbury’s David Flood, all choirs eventually sang together in perfect ensemble with the aid of video links. It was pleasing to hear the iridescent high notes in the bits for small ensemble sung by boy soprano soloists, whose voices inherently widen at the top end and are remarkably enhanced by the Cathedral’s stone as pitch increases.
C. Hubert H. Parry’s Hear my words, ye people was robustly performed with all singers at the crossing and conducted by John Scott, formerly of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, and accompanied on the organ by the Cathedral’s own Scott Dettra. John Scott’s formal, yet beautifully minimalist conducting approach was expanded for the most part by having his right hand quite high above his head making slow gestures. Parry’s compositions generally sound like a blend of Bach, Mendelssohn, and Reger, with Hear my words, ye people very much an emulation of the former two. The section for trebles alone on the text “For as the earth bringeth forth her bud, and garden causeth things that are sown to spring forth” was most beautiful in its delicate simplicity. Dettra’s registrations allowed one to experience the multiple string divisions of the Cathedral organ, whose $12 million replacement project is currently on hold.
The Canterbury Choir’s performance of Frank Martin’s Sanctus featured arresting chromaticism and colorful droning clusters by the men of the choir. Martin repeatedly emphasized the word “Hosanna” in a powerful way. Even though the pitch of the ensemble was beginning to move, the Canterbury choir’s intensity and fluency were gripping. St. Thomas Church’s performance of Byrd’s Laudibus in sanctis featured flawless ensemble and diction, and a gentle yet substantial build in volume to the end that was carefully controlled over a long period of time. Michael McCarthy and the Washington National Cathedral Choir did a nice job exploiting the Voldemort moments -- McCarthy has recorded film music for Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings -- in William Walton’s The Twelve, based on a poem by W. H. Auden. Musical word painting setting up the words “Dark Lord,” “starry heavens,” and “the Truth” were especially gripping.
In a break with the British choral tradition, both the girl and boy choristers were singing together in the Washington National Cathedral choir, with the more mature, laser-like tone of the girls often dominating that of the boys. This was particularly the case in Michael Tippett’s arrangement of Five Negro Spirituals, which were musically interesting but lacked a bit of the “the Spirit” in the AME sense -- (Sir) Tippett is English. With the success of this event, it is discomforting to hear that according to a chorister alum, funding for Washington National Cathedral Chorister Scholarships is under review. Perhaps a special appeal should have been made to the full house of more than one-thousand devoted listeners on Sunday afternoon.
The next concert at Washington National Cathedral will feature the Cathedral Choral Society in a French program including Berlioz's Te Deum and the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony (May 10, 4 pm).
This review is an Ionarts exclusive.